A rich variety of music that ranges from traditional-pop hybrids to Bollywood-inspired tunes to good old rock ‘n’ roll.
After a pair of releases that focused on a single singer, the third set from the French reissue label Akuphone, which specializes in global sounds, gains strength from its broader overview of the seldom heard pop music of Sri Lanka. While music from India and Pakistan, especially Bollywood film music, has frequently been tapped for reissue, the 60’s and 70’s music from this region is a rarer bird. The two-disc set The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music collects a rich variety of music that ranges from traditional-pop hybrids to Bollywood-inspired tunes to good old rock ‘n’ roll.
The diverse culture of Sri Lanka is made up of various religious influences. The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist, the Tamil mainly Hindu and Christian and Muslim minorities are part of the mix as well. The nation’s music is as varied as its worship. Most of these recordings come from the archives of Sooriya Records, a versatile imprint that featured subgenres like the calypso-influenced baila and sarala gee, a light classical music inspired by Bollywood and Western pop music.
The set opens with the traditional feel and gentle pop melody of baila master Paul Fernando’s “Egoda Gode.” “Soken Pale Ne,” by sitar master Pandit W.D. Amaradeva, uses traditional string instruments, but these are used for more modern lines that, with a little amplification, would be edgy electric guitar riffs. The unusual timbre of dual-tracked sitars makes it clear why Western groups often tapped this music in the psychedelic era.
After a few tracks of the advertised folk-pop hybrid, the set goes straight pop with Clarence Wijewardena’s “Gamen Liyumak,” which opens with electric guitar and floats on a farfisa riff. On “Naan Unnai Thedum,” Tamil producer Paramesh takes an underlying melodramatic pop aesthetic and adds psychedelic touches, electric guitar fills and almost theremin-like keyboards. The Fortunes’ “Instrumental Baila Medley” starts with a farfisa that suggests the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” but quickly runs through a succession of melodies that include what sounds like a Latin-tinged “Yakety Sax.”
On the other end of the spectrum, ”Ceremonial Drums” from Pani Bharatha & Party is one of the album’s more starkly traditional pieces, opening with a horn blare and heavy percussion as subtle melodies gradually bubble up from the rhythms. “Vairodi Wannama” by the Police Reserve Hewisi Band is in a similar vein and, perhaps not coincidentally, is a more martial-sounding example.
While lyrics haven’t been provided, the one English-language example may indicate a cheerful, if wistful, sentiment. Claude & The Sensations with Noeline Mendis pay homage to the largest city in Sri Lanka with “City of Colombo,” with lyrics that yearn for escape: “There’s a place where the sky’s always blue/ And the sea is so calm all day through.”
Like a good mixtape, Sri Lanka: The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music shifts among subgenres, taking diverse pieces and distinct voices for an integrated sonic experience that immerses you in a region that, as far as this anthology is concerned, is naturally multicultural. Whether the various factions truly get along is a question left unanswered, especially since liner notes were not provided with review files. But even without any background, you can imagine this compilation as a gift that a musically well-rounded friend sent you from their visit to Sri Lanka.